We generally care of how we are perceived by the people around us. This perception can be influenced by many factors and its research goes back to various concepts in communication and behavioral studies. The digital age has brought different ways of communicating with another, and with it came different ways of how to present ourselves online. But did those ways actually change our behavior? In my first blogpost on social (m)edia I reflected on my personal impression of positioning our digital “self”. Now it’s time to dig a little deeper – How do we actually present ourselves in social media services? And on what is the theoretical background for our behavior grounded?
Taking a look into previous literature it becomes clear that social presence and self-presentation are key concepts when classifying social media . I will therefore focus on analysing those two concepts on their applicability and reflect on existing discussions on the topic.
According to Kaplan and Haenlein  it can be said that “the higher the social presence, the larger the social influence that the communication partners have on each other’s behaviour”. This notion of social presence can be compared with the practise of “seeing and being seen” in real life. It depends a lot on the idea of being aware of where things are happening as well as with how many you are connected to. In many social media platforms the number of connections provides the core factor of social presence (f.ex. number of friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter or contacts on LinkedIn). Crumlish and Malone state that “people and their presentation of self and their contributions” to social sites is the core for a rich and thriving community .
I would like to give an example for an implementation of social presence as a factor, the social media site: Klout. Klout is a social media which combines the data it gathers from other platforms and creates a combined Klout score (a number from 1 to 100) which apparently states the influence you have on others and makes your number comparable to other active users. You therefore see if you’re influencing your online communication partners and how much.
Going back to the main concepts, social presence is just one of the key factors – the other one is the presentation of self. Self-presentation can be linked back to Goffman’s theories of identity and social performance, which is referred to as the intentional and tangible component of identity . Goffman states that during “any type of social interaction people have the desire to control the impressions other people form of them” . This notion is of course not just applicable for social media, but has gained an additional context, as we shape and form the content we enter in social media networks. Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective enhances the idea that individuals present and idealize their character rather than presenting an authentic version of themselves . Which basically means that instead of presenting or revealing their true identities users provide a shaped and altered version of it. As a motivation in this setting would be how they want to be perceived. This dramaturgical perspective is based on a widely discussed theory, where two metaphorical stages are in focus: First “the back stage” (private: or the preparation of a performance) and secondly “the front stage” (public: as a presentation of the performance). Hogan explains this idea by defining the front as a stage where “we are trying to present an idealized version of the self according to a specific role” whereas the back stage describes the phase where “we do the real work to keep up appearances” . The important part in social media is therefore the front stage. Lewis et al.  argue that the option of access control on social media services (as for example limiting access to information on a specific group f.ex. friends) can be seen as the back stage. On the other hand Horst and Hjorth state that “the boundaries between the public and the private presentation of self increasingly gets blurry” .
In line with the drama inspired stage metaphor the discussion of identity and the notion of “playing a role” is also of importance. In connection to social media I am hereby neither talking about playing a role as in virtual games nor taking nicknames, fake identities or similar problematics into account (even if all those elements are of importance), but instead I am referring to the more general notion of the identity we provide online. Here users have developed identity strategies, which change according to their appointed target. Kietzmann et al.  point out that those identities are chosen in order to serve the specific purpose such as for example self-promotion (Facebook) or self-branding (LinkedIn).
It becomes clear that the presentation of self in the age of social media underlies different forces leading to an combining aspect of how to be perceived online. With other words users are now choosing what personally to display, which can be considered as a form of “impression management” and a “selective disclosure of personal details designed to present an idealized self” . But even if the users are choosing what to share, the existing connected problems with privacy, data ownership and saving data issues are ongoing problems in this matter. It can be said that, as part of the digitization, the ways of communication, as well as the picture of how people perceived themselves and each other has been changing and Boyd argues that “digital profiles can never be real” .
This blog post discussed two concepts named by Kaplan and Haenlein on the questions of how people present themselves in social media, connected to Goffman’s theoretical groundwork.
I am aware that there are many other discussions connected to this subject, which weren’t mentioned here, but might be part of further work in this area. I also recommend Milly’s article on the same subject, here targeting on an overview of image creation and other issues connected to self presentation.
- Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business horizons, 53(1), 59-68.
- Crumlish, C., & Malone, E. (2009). Designing social interfaces: Principles, patterns, and practices for improving the user experience. Yahoo Press.
- Goffman, E. (2002). The presentation of self in everyday life. 1959. Garden City, NY.
- Hogan, B. (2010). The presentation of self in the age of social media: distinguishing performances and exhibitions online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(6), 377-386.
- Lewis, K., Kaufman, J., & Christakis, N. (2008). The taste for privacy: An analysis of college student privacy settings in an online social network. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 14(1), 79-100.
- Horst and Hjorth in The SAGE Handbook of Digital Technology Research. Ed. Price,S. Jewitt, C., Brown, B. 2013
- Kietzmann, J. H., Hermkens, K., McCarthy, I. P., & Silvestre, B. S. (2011). Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media. Business Horizons, 54(3), 241-251.
- Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship.Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 13(1), 210-230.
Featured images (girl in mirror) taken from flickr. CC by Maria Morri (Idhren)
Other image: own klout profile, screenshot (taken 21/09/2013)